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AVERTING OUR GAZE:
PASSING IN THE LIVES OF WHITE, WORKING CLASS LESBIANS
BY JULIE WILSON
A THESIS TO COMPLETE THE REQUIREMENTS
FOR A MASTER OF ARTS DEGREE IN THEOLOGY
AT THE EPISCOPAL DIVINITY SCHOOL
CAMBR I DGE , MASSACHUSETTS
APRIL 1, 1991
(c) Copyright Julie Wilson. All rights reserved.
No part of this thesis may be reproduced, stored
in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form
or by any means without the written permission of
Mother, I learned to lie to you
in the early morning of my life.
When women flooded my hands like icy waters
lies were my shelter.
When women blew across my body like storm wind!
lies were my shelter.
When women struck my heart like lightning
lies were my shelter.
Mother, I learned to lie to you
lies were my shelter
in the early morning
of my life.
"Shelter," Julie Wilson, 1990
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Part I — Passing 16
Part II — Assimilation 28
Part III — Internalized Oppression 37
Conclusion .......... 47
Appendix I — Origin of the Idea 52
Appendix II — Methodology 53
Appendix III — Survey of White, Working Class Lesbians . . 56
All my love to my mother Elmerta Mae Wilson, my grandmother
Ida Elizabeth Gfeller, my brother Ronald Duane Wilson, the memory
of my father Thomas Dwight Wilson , and every other member of my
extended family. May laughter always fill our hearts and homes.
Warmest, sincerest, and most enthusiastic thanks to The
Reverend Dr. I. Carter Heyward and The Reverend Dr. Katie 6.
Cannon for the helpful guidance and lively erons (#) they
supplied throughout this project.
With special appreciation for Lee Ann Hopkins., other
ecstatic yippees! and thank yous ! go to the following folks who
directly supported my thesis work: Evelyn Ashford, Norene
Carter, Sharon K. Coliinge, Melissa Cooper, Carol DeFabio, Judith
Dennis, Episcopal Divinity School Faculty, Feminist Liberation
Theology Committee, FLT Curriculum Conference, David Graves, Meek
Groot, Anne Frances Hutchinson, Mykel Johnson, Joanna Kadi, Pat
Hawkins, Sherri Hostetler, Ceil Lavan , Sharon Lewis, Lesbian
Issues Group, D. Ngozi Obi, Sue Phillips, Marjorie Sa'adah, Joan
Sakalas, Jane Saracen, Sylvia Shirk, Jane Spickett, Mary Sykes,
Maureen Wheat, Joann Vasconcel los , and the Working Class Women's
* When stimulating and creative work is being done, "erons" s^re
This master's thesis initiates a proposed, four part
exploration of passing in the lives of white, working class
lesbians. I posit that both class location and sexuality a.re
issues of survival in contemporary U.S. society — a society based
on racism, classism, and heterosexism . The purpose of this
thesis is to begin chapter one, which defines analytical
constructs related to the issue of passing.
I start research for the remaining three chapters fall of
1991 in my PhD program at Emory University in Atlanta. The
second chapter documents institutional constraints in the lives
of white,, working class lesbians. Its purpose, as well, will be
to illustrate ways these women have resisted oppression in their
churches, schools, workplaces and the like. Chapter three asks
the question , what is white, working class lesbian culture?
Interviews and survey data will provide the resources for
answering this question. The concluding chapter calls for
collective action; it raises up the white ? working class lesbian
"ethic of good will." With this ethic as a constructive guide,
chapter four proposes life-affirming strategies and sets
strategic priorities for survival in, and transformation of, a
I consider this project critically important, not only for
my own survival as a white ? working class lesbian, but
particularly as I see its relationship to the state of
contemporary U.S. society. Our most recent national crisis (the
Gulf war) glaringly exposes the need for this kind of research —
studies that determine which people (and how many of them) remain
gagged by dominant attitudes and appearances touted as universal
by an exploitative., thoroughly militarized social structure.
Certainly, exploring the issue of passing proves a. challenging
task in this context.
I answer this challenge with a determination based on
generations of silence. Janet Zandy, in her book Cal ling Home
writes, "For working class women, writing or telling one's
story, breaking the silence. . . is an individual act of
courage." (*) I would add as well that such valor always springs
forth from a community context. It requires much nurturing.
Those of us who speak emerge from lovingly tended seeds, sown
long ago. Certainly, no one person can speak, for any other, even
within the same community. I speak for myself. I am white,
working class, and lesbian. I respectfully heed the words of my
Gramma, who told me many times, "bloom where you're planted."
* Cal ling Home ; Working-Class Women ' s Writings , edited by Janet
Zandy, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, New Jersey,
1990, page 6.
In the nighttime on my Gramma's land
comes the prayer to stand on
when I'm reac hi n' up
to take all the stars from this Kansas sky
and throw them up so high
they come down on this godforsaken kingdom
like chunks of lead light. 1
Social location , that process by which an individual or
community places their experience in a. particular context,
considers objectivity an unattainable ambition. Claiming to
remain uninfluenced by emotion or personal prejudice sabotages
serious discussion of contestable issues. The critical naming of
social location settles one's feet on the earth; it brushes dust
from the map of the world, exposing the positions and boundaries
of identity; it acknowledges the fact that no human looks down on
others from the lofty heights of a. heavenly sphere. Shaped by
many factors, such as race, sex, class, and sexual orientation,
social location is the site from which we gaze. Feminist
ethicist Beverly W. Harrison says that this point of departure
shapes our moral sensibilities. She stresses that social
location "... involves naming structures that create the social
privilege we possess as well as understanding how we have been
victims . "
As the cornerstone of U.S. society, the structure of white
privi lege holds in place a weighty system of social, political,
and economic domination, where whites benefit from advantages
held as an exclusive right guaranteed by virtue of re.ce . This
privilege manifests itself in laws and traditions protecting what
dictatorial class of people consider their due. "White,"
sometimes termed "Caucasian," designates the primar
racial /ethnic identity of those who rule western "civilization."
Rarely an identifiable skin color ^ white guarantees life-long
prerogatives; it presumes the self-determination of adulthood, as
in the racist phrase "free, white, and over 21." White children
are taught to believe that other people have racial /ethnic
identities, and that they remain unsoiled by one. Peggy
Mcintosh, in her article "White Privilege: Unpacking the
Invisible Knapsack," explains this structure:
. whites are carefully taught not to recognize
white privilege. . . I have come to see white privilege
as an invisible package of unearned assets that I can
count on cashing in each day, but about which I was
'meant' to remain oblivious. White privilege is like
an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions,
maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and
blank, checks. 3
Like invisible ink, the concept "white" drips onto every page of
every book and dissolves there — although white people may try to
write over it, denying its existence, white saturates each
thought, each supposedly objective argument. A thunderous
silence, white need not speak to be heard.
The frame of U.S. society, that skeletal structure designed
to give shape or support, consists of a stratification of social
classes by economic, political, and cultural characteristics,
largely determined by virtue of birth. Stacked top to bottom,
this hierarchical system insures that people in the upper
echelons benefit from the labor and resources of people in the
lower levels. CI ass ism — discrimination or prejudice based on
class location — permeates this structure.
The mythology of upward mobi 1 i ty operates as a linchpin to
hold these layers in place. Upward mobility boasts that anyone
in the U.S. who tries hard enough can rise from one social class
to another. When an individual or community attempts to live out
this myth (primarily to procure basic human rights), it becomes
devastating ly clear that upward mobility obscures a rigidly
fitted, classist structure. Although many people still cling to
this myth, most U.S. families have not changed classes for
No stronger example exists to illustrate the static nature
of class location than the maternal branch of my own family. The
Gfeller's trace their ancestry to one Burchard Geveller, who in
1301 was living on his own farm three miles south of Walkringen,
Switzerland. Six hundred and ninety (690) years later, my
grandmother Ida Elisabeth Bfeller (wife of Louis) lives on her
own farm as well, five miles northeast of Abilene, Kansas.
Geographical location stands as the only significant change in
nearly seven centuries — what better proof to suggest class
stratification remains consistent over generations.
In order to work effectively, the linchpin of upward
mobility must be constructed from the strong stuff of dreams.
Taking advantage of people's healthy desire for self-improvement,
those few families who benefit from class privilege manufacture
a white , midd le c lass ethos , which encourages the belief that all
citizens hold membership in what is called "the middle class."
This ethos propagandizes the principles of social equality
inherent in the concept of "democracy," while it paradoxically
insists that women ^re inferior to men and "white is right." A
dangerous system of so-called "principles," it holds an unjust
structure in place by obscuring racial, ethnic, and class
location and by clouding class antagonism.
It also encourages cul tural hegemony . An agenda
representing the interests of those who set themselves up as
rulers, cultural hegemony includes the imperative that "leaders"
continue to benefit socially, politically, and economically from
a power differential in U.S. society. These rewards depend upon
the continued exploitation of workers, from whose labors the
governing profit, thus deriving their leisure. Cultural
hegemony touts itself as "common-sense," the natural order of
things. It arrogantly co-opts the creative and intellectual
energy of other cultures and twists it into a. noose of dominant
behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, and institutions.
Under a thick cloud of mystification, with their necks
caught in the noose of cultural hegemony, stands the working
c lass . Rarely do these folks identify as such. When they do,
cultural hegemony is prepared to convince them they are actually
middle class, or on their way up an easily scaled success ladder
Unfortunately, because of the grueling reality of exploitative
labor, working class vision is already obscured by a slumped
posture; those who bear the heavy burden of producing goods and
services remain bent over, crushed beneath the weight of other
people riding on their backs.
Undergirding the weighty structure of racist and classist
exploitation, heterosexism provides critical support for U.S.,
cultural hegemony. Heterosexism is discrimination or prejudice
based on sexual orientation and gender. Its foundational
principle proclaims a distinction between women and men, assuming
a differentiated instinct, intellect, and ability. Inherent in
this dissimilarity is the presumption of male superiority.
Heterosexism builds on this male/female dualism to then
categorize sexual orientation. It considers heterosexual ity —
characterized by attraction to the opposite sex — ethically and
innately superior to lesbian and gay sexuality — which is
characterized by attraction to the same sex.
Perpetuated by U.S. institutions, heterosexism wields
considerable power. The practice of marriage provides a useful
illustration of this influence. Marriage law legitimates the
inion of a woman and man, yet considers same sex covenants
illegal. This discriminatory law births other legislation, such
as tax and insurance law, that favors heterosexual unions.
However, because of the underlying agenda, of male supremacy,
these unions do not guarantee equality for women. In a
heterosexist context it is significant that, when married, the
majority of women relinquish their "maiden name." Every marriage
is a marriage of convenience for men; these unions a,re
prearranged for their politial, economic, and social benefit.
Supporting this hidden agenda, of male domination, the church
provides a holy sanction for male/female joinings. Priests and
ministers co-opt the power of the voice of God. They declare
heterosexuals who live together out of wedlock, sinful. They
demonize lesbian and gay sexuality and cast it out of their very
midst. In this calculated way, institutions like the government
and church work together to insidiously insure that men, and the
heterosexual unions which benefit them, reign supreme.
The monolithic institutions of racism, classism, and
heterosexism forcefully shape our personal lives. For example,
although white, I only began to understand the importance of
identifying as such after hearing the question, "when did you
first recognize the privilege of being white in this society?"
Until then, I existed in the powerful bliss of ignorance. Never
in my schooling did I hear "white" discussed as a racial /ethnic
identity. Everywhere it seemed as though race was an
inappropriate, impolite subject for discussion. I suppose this
makes sense, because the hateful racism perpetuated by white
people throughout history gives us much to conceal , much about
which to be morally embarrassed and ashamed. Today, naming my
whiteness operates as an ethical imperative; pretending to be
objective, pretending to be "color-blind," I believe fatally
flaws any analysis.
Remembering the awakening of my working class consciousness
causes pain; like a numb limb returning to life, the memory
stings. Assigned in a class the task of designing my "dream
job" — that work I would do if I had all the resources and money
in the world — I drew a blank. Given one week to work on this
project, I couldn't think of a thing. I also thought it didn't
upset me; yet in class the next week, when everyone else outlined
elaborate, imaginative plans, I felt ashamed and unintelligent.
I still had written nothing. Twenty-seven years old at the time,
I found out then how severely class injury stifles the creative,
liberative imagination. When the limbs of my critical
consciousness rose from sleep, I used them to uncover my heritage
as a working class woman, a child of generations of farmers.
I discovered my lesbian identity quite differently, at age
sixteen. I'll never forget driving through a rainstorm down a
Kansas highway and feeling a rush of strong, confused emotions
about my best friend. Suddenly, my body registered a. sincere
shock, and I thought to myself, "I love her," and knew this love
was what women were supposed to feel for men. So, even though
many years passed before I became involved with a woman, I held
onto a clear sense of my lesbian sexuality. I'm not sure how I
did this. My sexuality wasn't informed by words, because in the
context of the early 1970' s, lesbian and gay people were
invisible in Dickinson county, Kansas. No one said the words
"gay" or "lesbian," even per j oratively . I learned what
homophobia was from what remained unsaid. My lesbianism did not
involve a conversion experience? since I never became involved
with men, it. lacked the elements of transformation. Rather, it
feels to me like I simply unfolded into my authentic self.
My social location as white, working class, and lesbian
keenly informs my experience of contemporary U.S. society. A
tendency to pass, in terms of concealing my identity, stems from
my fear of hostile institutions that manufacture a violent,
propagandistic ethos of white, middle class superiority. This
ethos incites and sanctions hostility against those of us who
seem different; its existence supports my conviction that class
status and sexual identity a.rs survival issues.
To further substantiate my claim I undertake in this thesis
the first step of a thorough sociohistorical analysis. This
analysis aims to pull apart the enmeshed layers of the social and
historical realities of being white, working class, and lesbian
in contemporary U.S. society.
I seek to reveal the deadly nature of institutions hostile
to white, working class lesbians by examining the ways those of
us with such a social location respond to them. Certainly, one
primary way we respond is by playing the dangerous game of
concealed identites called passing. A careful study of passing,
then, must include an examination of our behaviors and attitudes.
This examination must begin with a clear definition of passing,
as well as other behaviors, attitudes, and/or institutions
relating to passing. In this thesis, I define the issue of
passing itself, and include two other issues for clarification of
the sociohistorical reality of life as a white, working class
lesbian — assimilation and internalized oppression.
A thorough definition of passing is presented as the first
section in this work. I look to literature, formative thinker
Carter Heyward, and narratives from my survey on white, working
class lesbians to flesh out this much used, but rarely defined,
I follow this definition of passing with a section on
assimilation. This part of the thesis serves a dual purpose.
Meant as a contrast to passing, it also operates as a further
definition of assimilation in contemporary U.S. society.
Exploration of this issue is fundamental to the study of passing.
One reason is because many people use the words passing and
assimilation interchangeably. I seek to point out the danger of
To further flesh out the study of passing, I examine in the
last section one prevalent behavior in the white,, working class
lesbian community — the internalization of oppression. The
noxious fumes of oppression actually enter the body of white,
working class lesbians and cause us to abuse ourselves and one
another. Internalized oppression has much to do with the issue
of passing .
In the conclusion to this work I seek to outline the white,
working class lesbian ethic, which I call an ethic of "good
will." This xs a "working title" for this ethic, and as I
continue this work in my PhD program I hope a more appropriate
naming will emerge. I feel that an exploration of this ethic
will give white, working class lesbians a resource for
constructing productive, transformative survival strategies.
PART I — PASSING
Passing is a costume I put on and take off
when I need it; sometimes it is hastily
thrown on, and just enough to get by. Other
times, however, it is a carefully constructed
and made up facade. I can't seem to get passing
out of my psychological , social and actual
wardrobe . 1
Those of us who socially locate as white, working class
lesbians often demonstrate a. tendency to pass. We pretend to
identify with governing cultural assumptions of white, middle
class, and heterosexual behavior. Our passing is informed by
the stark reality that class status and sexual identity are
survival issues in contemporary U.S. society.
The American Heritage Dictionary defines passing as "death."
In common speech, this definition remains consistent; the word
"passing" most often finds usage in euphemistic references to
physical death, such as "passing on" and "passing away". The
Random House Dictionary defines "passing" as, "to let go without
notice; leave unconsidered; disregard; overlook; to cause or
allow to go through or over a barrier." A Feminist Dictionary
quotes Liz Stanley and Joan Nestle, who explain it as a survival
strategy. They write, "Long used by Blacks and gays. . .
passing may also refer to lesbians who pass for straight or to
lesbians 'who look like men to the straight world'."
The concept of passing originates in the African-American
community, where lightness of skin often means survival in a
eurocentric, white-supremacist world. Borrowed by other
oppressed groups, such as the lesbian and gay community, this
concept characterizes the experiences of marginalized people
attempting to survive in U.S. society — a society that by all
indications considers the ethos of white, middle class reality
the norm. Like the carpenter's square (that L-shaped instrument
for drawing and testing right angles), norms characterize those
ethical standards, patterns, and models considered typica*l in
contemporary U.S. society. Norms evaluate the individual's fit,
constantly estimating one's ability to socially belong.
In the novel entitled Passing , author Nella Larsen ' s
exploration of racial passing in the 1920' s further describes the
concept of passing through the lives of Clare Kendry and Irene
Redfield. Both African-American women, Clare plays a dangerous
game as she passes for white and marries a white man, and Irene
lives with the fear her friend will be discovered. At one point
in the novel, Irene visits Clare. Upon first meeting Clare's
white husband, John Bel lew, Irene passes for white as well, and
feels, "A faint sense of danger [brush] her, like the breath of a
cold fog . "
Bel lew's racism showers like hateful sparks throughout his
conversation, and the particular irony that he is married to an
African-American woman and doesn't know it is illustrated when
Clare playfully asks him, "'What difference would it make if,
after all these years, you were to find out that I was one or two
per cent coloured?'" His answer confirms Irene's worst fears for
Clare's future, "'I know you're no nigger, so it's all right.
You can get as black, as you please as far as I'm concerned, since
I know you're no nigger. I draw the line at that."
The fact that John Bel lew cannot see people of color at all,
even those in his own life, parallels the invisibility of
lesbians in contemporary heterosexist society. May Barton, in
her novel The Education of Harriet Hatfield , illustrates this
invisibility and shows how it contributes to the concept of
passing. The main character Harriet — a white, upper class
lesbian — spends her life living comfortably in Chestnut Hill, an
affluent suburb of Boston. A thirty-year relationship with her
lover Vicky remains unacknowledged by her family or friends. She
shatters this invisibility after the death of her lover, by
opening a women's bookstore and coming out as a lesbian to
herself, her family, old friends, and an often hostile public.
When considering whether or not to disclose her lesbianism
to her brother, Harriet thinks to herself, "The very idea makes
me physically uncomfortable. . . My family had seemed to take
for granted that Vicky and I were partners and had never asked an
embarrassing question. And Vicky would have lied if they had
probed. . ." In this way, Harriet and Vicky's lesbian
relationship never challenges the dominant, heterosexist attitude
in their white, upper class social setting. Their very
invisibility informs their passing, and vice versa. When
attempting to define passing, one must always look for its
relationship to an invisibility that discounts lesbian lives.
The way those who use passing weave together invisibility
and illusion is well illustrated in the story of Ellen Craft and
her husband William, who in 1848 used passing as a survival
strategy to escape slavery. An African-American woman, Ellen
passed as a white, male, invalid slaveowner on a journey from
Georgia to Philadelphia. Her husband posed as her black, male
slave. William speaks here of a particularly harrowing moment,
when Ellen must quickly add another strategy to her passing
repertoire in order to elude capture:
As soon as the train had left the platform,
[Ellen] looked round in the carriage, and was
terror-stricken to find a Mr. Cray — an old
friend of [her] master, who dined with the
family the day before, and knew my wife from
childhood — sitting on the same seat. . . [She]
resolved to feign deafness as the only means
of sel f-def ense . 10
This story well demonstrates the risks involved in passing.
Kore Archer, in an essay about this brave escape, elaborates,
"And if their plan failed? They must have been well aware that
Ellen's fair skin would fetch her master a. pretty price in the
brothels of Natchez or New Orleans. At the very least, they
risked never seeing each other again." What a cruel decision
for two people to have to make! Passing never presupposes
success; it always attempts to balance the assumptions of a
dominant society that feed illusions with the hard realities of
the costs of being uncloaked and punished.
As shown through literature and oral history, different
voices describe passing in different ways. Yet, a common story
emerges, and it tells us that the extent to which passing is used
always indicates the loss of power a person or community is
suffering in relation to dominant norms.
In her book Touching Our Strength : The Erotic as Power and
the Love of God , Carter Hey ward discusses sexuality from a
feminist liberation theology perspective. Heyward, a white,
middle class, lesbian priest, mentions passing in this work. She
admits, "In 1979, part of me still wanted to 'pass.' Today I am
clear that I don't pass in relation to the norms of dominant
political, theological, or psychological culture. . . Coming out
moves me further, a day at a time, into the realization that I
don't want to pass."
An interview with Carter Heyward, specifically dealing with
the matter of passing, points out the many serious complexities
of this issue, even in the experience of a lesbian theologian who
is out in her professional and personal lives. She says, "I
define passing negatively, as . . . choosing to refuse to be who
I am in a. public mode, and in that sense, refusing to embody the
struggle for lesbian and gay justice. Passing is hiding. It's
death. When I am not passing, when I am really out, I feel most
al i ve . "
She elaborates her definition like this, "When I'm passing,
I know I'm not as alive. My passion is not being generated, my
energy is not as accessible. My creativity is dulled. Passing
cuts and diminishes my own capacity to be a creative theologian,
a lively person."
Heyward ' s comments support as well the fact that the concept
of passing originates in the African-American community.
"I first heard the term "passing" used in reference to black
people passing as white. Growing up in the South. . . I remember
hearing about it. I didn't know anybody who did it. That was
part of the phenomenon of course, you didn't know who passed.
Passing was about secrecy, hiddenness, lying."
This "not knowing" who is and is not passing contributes to
the enforced invisibility of marginalized groups in the U.S.
Lesbians certainly move invisibly, and Heyward asserts a. truth
familiar to most lesbians, "In heterosexist patriarchy the
assumption shared by most folks, 24 hours a day, is that we're
not lesbians unless we are actually naming ourselves as such."
Naming lesbianism a reality proves a difficult task even for
the most out lesbian, and even in the most mundane of situations.
When discussing trips out shopping at the grocery store, for
example, Heyward admits, ". . . I'm aware of the fact that I tend
not to do things that would necessarily draw attention to my
being a lesbian, not snuggling up to my lover and holding her
hand, for instance. That's not even a very conscious decision in
the realm of public life. But it is nonetheless a decision, and
so, in that sense I do pass for straight. . ."
When asked about the gains and losses of passing, Heyward is
quick to make it clear that not passing allows her a freedom of
psychic and spiritual movement. She states, "It's very wonderful
not to feel that I have to hide, or pull punches or . . . be
careful in that sense."
"Of course, coming out has involved some losses," admits
Heyward, "I don't have a. lot of professional mobility, for
example, and I don't have much professional credibility in the
circles that I once really wanted to be affirmed in. . .[yet], I
am deeply affirmed in other circles. I experience genuine
gratitude for the work. I do, and that's very important to me."
Finding professional affirmation proved challenging for
Heyward. She expresses it this way, "It's been a long, slow,
painful lesson for me, learning where my self-esteem is rooted,
and how to value myself as a theologian."
If coming out as a lesbian is indeed, as Heyward ultimately
makes clear in her interview, well worth it, why then does-
passing still remain so present in her life and the lives of
other lesbians? Her answer expresses a sad and dangerous truth.
There's so much pressure being put on by the church
and the larger society for people to be silent, to
shut up and not be "out" about anything. To conform.
To get in there and aa our duties. It really is very
fascist. Dorothee Solle speaks of "christo-f ascism"20
and that's right where we a.re now: We're being asked
to march in lock -step, and any of us who dare deviate,
who dare to step to one side or the other. . . a.re
going to have to pay for it.
The strength and urgency of Carter Heyward ' s voice makes it
clear that passing must be added to the ethical canon of
critical, contestable issues in contemporary U.S. society.
Certainly, passing plays different roles in different lives; yet,
it consistently contributes to the painful shape-shifting of
individuals and communities struggling for survival under a siege
of strictly measured,, dominating attitudes.
As one of these struggling communities, white, working class
lesbians often play along with the illusion of being middle class
and heterosexual. When overbearing attitudes assume everyone
shares this identity, anyone different feels pressure. Poet
Audre Lorde explains that western eurocentric society will always
handle human differences in one of three ways, "ignore it, and if
that is not possible, copy it if we think it is dominant, or
destroy it if we think it is subordinate." The harsh reality
of this attitude creates an atmosphere where reactions to class
location and sexuality become issues of survival. Hostile
reactions foster an environment pressuring white, working class
lesbians to pass.
Violence against lesbians and gay men testifies to the fact
that our lesbian sexuality threatens our very lives. In his book
Violence Against Lesbians and Gay Men , Gary Comstock analyzes
thirty-two surveys having to do with violence targeted at lesbian
and gay people. He draws tentative conclusions that speak
dramatically about the risk of disclosing a gay or lesbian
identity. He summarizes
. slightly more than ha 1 f [my
emphasis] of socially active lesbians and gay men
experience some form of an ti-gay/ lesbian violence."
Interestingly, he also finds that, "more women from lower— class
backgrounds. . . fall within the general anti-gay/ lesbian
violence category than do those from other class backgrounds."
Cited as a primary motivation for passing, the fear of
physical violence permeates the responses of ten women who
participated in my study of white, working class lesbians. In
this survey (that, incident ly, asked no direct questions about
lesbian and gay violence), over and over women expressed concern
that their lesbian identity would incite attack. One woman
writes, "I feel most pressured to pass when I feel threatened —
[my lover] and I took the pink triangle off the truck when we
moved [ to a new neighborhood]."
Another woman flatly states, "CI feel most motivated to
pass] when I'm in danger — around mysogynist and homophobic men — I
feel that it would encourage violence to be overtly lesbian."
"The only situations where? I have found myself making any
real attempt to pass were conversations being held in public
places," states one woman, ". . . I do not experience 'the
outside world" as a safe place, and therefore, I find it more
threatening, especially with gay bashing on the increase."
Interestingly, one woman who came out as a lesbian in
college now passes at her workplace because of her fears of
violence. She writes, "Nowadays, I feel more frightened about
potential punishment for being a lesbian, so I don't come out as
much at work . "
Passing logically operates as a survival strategy. It plays
a sheltering role in the lives of white, working class lesbians,
as it protects those of us who live outside of middle class and
heterosexual experience from storms of hatred and bigotry — that
is, as long as we believably play act that we s.re what we are
Another kind of violence threatens those of us in working
class communities. These noxious fumes infiltrate our lives.
For example, many of us remember, as children, the terrible work-
related accidents that happened sometimes to our parents, often
to our relatives or neighbors. And these .accidents still
The suffocation of my uncle Kenny in the alfalfa mill; the
crushed hip of my Grampa Gfeller (bedridden for twelve years from
a tractor wreck); what Janet Zandy, in her essay "Labor Day"
describes as the chemical burns on her father's body — these
incidents herald a brutally clear message. Moving up socially,
rising into the vocations of another class, becomes critical for
the survival of working class people. This desire to, as my
mother encourages, "move u.p and out," represents not a desire for
status or material gain, but a striving for humane, healthy, safe
work lives still denied to working class people in the U.S.
The ten white, working class lesbians I surveyed mentioned
situations where exploitative violence in the workplace led to
illness or disability. One woman writes, "When I stop to
consider that my father had a heart attack at age 49, I try to
imagine what his working life must have been like. He worked in
a factory until he retired at age 55. About 15 years after he
started there, he was promoted to foreman. . . He never talked
about his work, but there must have been a lot of stress in his
life. . . I would guess that his rise to foreman was a stressful
Certainly', disability is a state familiar to working class
people. One woman writes, "My great grandmother was a
domestic all her life. Her daughter was a domestic until she
became disabled." These survivors of work-related accidents
appear regularly as strong characters in our non-fiction
narratives. Their presence touches our lives deeply. We pay
close attention to the creative ways they overcome pain and
suffering, for we know their strategies will someday become
Since our tendency to pass performs such a primary role in
the ways we live as white, working class lesbians, particularly
in the ways we shift our reality to live that of someone else's,
our community shares a concrete understanding that the disclosure
of class location and sexuality are, in fact, always survival
In my survey of ten self-identified, white, working class
lesbians, this assessment yields some strikingly similar
attitudes about the role passing plays as survival tool. One
example provides clarity — fitting in on the job.
A woman describes her experience in business, "As a fat
woman, I already have to be smarter, prettier, faster, and better
than all my workmates. As a working class woman I also must be
better educated, even though I went to a state school. . . Most
of all, I find it beneficial to be well-read and erudite about
pol i tics . "
Another working class lesbian speaks candidly about her
work, "I feel pressure to pass where people have power to control
resources that I need, or where people can make decisions that
affect my life. . . The economy is horrible and I wouldn't get
another job soon if I were fired."
A third woman admits to very similar feeling. She says, "I
feel most pressured to pass. . . when I want something from
someone — [that is] a job, approval (like from family), [or]
money . "
Women make less money than men for comparable work, and
working class women in particular have fewer job options. "On
the average, a woman with a 4-year college education earns as
much as a man with an eighth-grade education," writes Diane
Bchafter in the book Women , Power , and Pol icy : Towards the Year
Consistently, fear of job loss and economic repraisal
persist as a solid motivation for white, working class lesbian
Like a game of hide and seek, passing allows white, working
class lesbians to dart back and forth between concealment and
discovery;, as we try harder and harder to create safe places for
ourselves in hostile surroundings. Yet unlike a game, passing
actually provides no "home free" base we can run to. The
American Heri taqe Dictionary says that to hide is, "to put or
keep out of sight. . . to prevent the disclosure or recognition
of. . . to avert (one's gaze) in shame or grief." These
definitions succinctly describe what long ago flooded our
community — a profound grief — the shared sorrow of those that must
hide in order to survive.
FART II — ASSIMILATION
. . . and you. know it's true
if you think about it
that the minute they want another trucker,
or dishwasher, or nursing home aide
for "back breaking work"
(that's what my Mom calls it)
they won't Zca.rel how good you can act
like you're middle class. . .
don ' t forget it
don ' t forget it
if there's one thing you owe yourself
it is not to forget this truth
assimilation is a crock of shit
We white, working class lesbians demonstrate a tendency to
assimilate to ruling societal norms, in terms of taking on. the
distinctive features of white, middle class, and heterosexist
culture. We do this because of the fact that only individuals
who become white, middle class, and heterosexual survive in
contemporary U.S. society.
The American Heritage Dictionary definition begins to
explain the word "assimilation." Defined as, "the process
whereby a group, as a minority or immigrant group gradually
adopts the characteristics of another culture," assimilation
takes on an active life. Unlike passing, which largely involves
ways of masking and hiding, assimilation traps the individual
self in an alien costume.
Interestingly, many people use the word "assimilation" when
they discuss passing. They speak as if these two words are
interchangeable; and certainly, the concepts have much in common
Yet crucial for our understanding is the realization that it is
not the word "assimilation" which so closely relates to passing,
but the word "assimulation . " Assimulation succinctly describes
the impulse to feign, counterfeit, or simulate, and clearly
operates as a useful synonym for passing. Confusing these
definitions leads to an underestimation of the deadly power of
assimi lation .
Although the Paule Marshall novel Brown Gir 1 , Brownstones
deals poignantly and primarily with the issue of internalized
oppression, it tells the story of assimilation as well. Selina
Boyce, daughter of Barbadian immigrants, grows up in Brooklyn in
the 1950' s. She finds herself caught between the two worlds
represented by her mother,, who contorts herself to begin the
process of assimi latation , and her father, who refuses to abandon
his Barbadian values.
A driving force in the immigrant community, Selena's mother
Silla leads a group of tightly knit, hard-working people fiercely
carving a place in their new home. At a community business
meeting in the neighborhood, one man expresses the sad but true
message of assimilation, "We ain white yet. We ' s small timers I
But we got our eye on the big time..." This single-minded
desire to be successful on white supremacist turf operates as a
lifeline for some Barbadians.
However, an oppressive reality crushes characters who
resist assimilation and refuse to grasp the lifeline of adopted
values and ways. The characters Deighton Boyce, Selena's father,
and Suggie Skeete, a kinswoman, both disobey the new rules in
this "new world." Their actions lead to exile from B.n immigrant
community discarding old values; such a rejection leads to
Deighton's eventual suicide.
Certainly, this story shows us how assimilation can tempt
people with the sweet, material rewards of U.S. society and an
avenue to a better life; yet it leaves a. bitter taste in the
mouth when one realizes how great and terrible loom the
sacrifices for survival .
Sometimes the sacrifice for assimilation demands murder. In
the short story "Desiree's Baby," by Kate Chopin, the reader
meets a thoroughly assimilated man, Armand Aubigny. Never told
by his adoptive, white parents that his mother is African-
American, he lives life as a rich, white plantation owner.
His marriage to Desiree, a white woman, results in the birth
of a child. As the baby grows, Armand becomes more angry and
withdrawn. He realises his child is not white, and this
knowledge enrages him. Unaware of his heritage, he assumes
Desiree to be a woman of color. He vents his fury on those
people of color he holds captive. Chopin writes, "... the very
spirit of Satan seemed suddenly to take hold of him in his
dealings with the slaves."
As a testament to invisibility, Desiree does not even see
her baby as different from any white child. Her ignorance
resembles that of John Bel lew in the novel Passing , who remains
oblivious to his wife Clare's African-American ancestry. When
Desiree slowly begins to see her baby, "... the blood turn[s]
like ice in her veins, and a clammy moisture gather[s] upon her
face." It seems there exists no place in either of their lives
for a child of color, even their own offspring — just as there
exists no place for a woman of color in John Bel lew's life- This
story chillingly exposes the white supremacist imperatives of
U.S. society; for Armand then sends Desiree away from the
plantation and she kills herself and the baby.
Not until after her and the baby's death does he find a
letter documenting his heritage. In it, his adoptive, white
mother thanks God for Armand ' s ignorance. The story ends here,
so the reader never discovers how or if Armand deals with this
We do discover, however, the sinister way assimilation
encourages genocide — Armand effectively wipes out his family
bloodline. Unlike his unfortunate child, Armand ' s light skin
color guaranteed survival. In this way assimilation transforms
individuals and communities over generations. They become
"whites" in a white supremacist culture, because only whites
survive in such a world; and they knowingly and unknowingly
murder their own unassimi lable children.
Like a violent, bootstamp, the survival strategy of
assimilation appears throughout the life and work of poet
Adrienne Rich. She writes, "I feel the history of denial within
me like an injury, a scar. For assimilation has affected my_
perceptions; those early lapses in meaning, those blanks, are
with me sti 11."
All of her identities — of which Jewish, lesbian, woman, and
mother are only a few — struggle with this brutal U.S. imperative.
This command issues the order to become heterosexual, think more
like a man, observe christian rituals. Rich considers it life-
threatening and elaborates:
The pressure to assimilate says different things
to different people: change your name, your accent,
your nose; straighten or dye your hair; stay in the
closet; pretend the Pilgrims were your fathers;
become baptized as a christian; wear dangerously
high heels, and starve yourself to look young, thin,
and feminine; don't gesture with your hands; value
elite European culture above all others; laugh at
jokes about your own people; don't make trouble;
defer to white men; smile when they take your
picture; be ashamed of who you. are. 9
Rich experienced this imperative early in life. Her
grandparents encouraged her father to deny his Jewish heritage in
order to succeed professionally. Rich writes that they, "sent
their son into the dominant southern WASP culture to become an
'exception' , to enter the professional class." As often
happens to those who adopt alien values for survival, his
experience reinforced an atmosphere of assimilation in their
home j, so much so that Rich developed no clear sense of herself as
Certainly, her experience exemplifies how assimilation
expends the original self. Rich's father believed, like his
parents, "With enough excellence, you could presumably make it
stop mattering that you. were Jewish. . . " He deliberately
kept her ignorant of her heritage. She writes, "We — my sister,
mother and I — were constantly urged to. . . assimilate with a
world which might see us as too flamboyant."
Rich resented this pressure to assimilate. When trying to
understand her father's abandonment of his identity';, she posits,,
"I wonder if that isn't one message of assimilation — of America. —
that the unlucky or the unachieving want to pull you. backward,
that to identify with them is to court downward mobility., lose
the precious chance of passing, of token existence . "
This token existence often provides the only chance for
survival of the marginalized — at what price life' 7 ' Rich considers
assimilation a cruel imperative, yet she acknowledges that choice
is not part of this equation. She compassionately explains that,
"Outsider is a condition which most people spend. . . great
energy trying to deny or evade, through whatever kinds of
assimilation or protective coloration they can manage."
Rich understands the complex nature of assimilation very
well. She warns, ". . . if you. unquestioning 1 y accept one
piece of the culture that despises and fears you, you B.re
vulnerable to other pieces. .
In this way assimilation
feeds more prejudice and bigotry into an already deadly system.
Rich makes it clear that the assimilated become bearers of a
racist, classist, and heterosexist banner, demanding assimilation
from the next wave of immigrants and from their family members.
Rich says these acculturated members of U.S. society act as,
"part of American's devouring plan in which the persecuted,
called to assimilation, learn that the price is to enqage in
persecution . "
Assimilation also tortures dreams, which oppressed groups
desperately need to water the liberative imagination. She says,
". . . we a.re unable to imagine a future because we B.re deprived
of the precious resource of knowing where we come from."
Adrienne Rich's words powerfully trumpet a call to resist
assimi lation .
As a "minority" culture in the U.S., white, working class
lesbians live under siege. In response to this onslaught of
oppressions, we often sue comb to the amnesia of assimilation by
adopting the values and mannerisms of middle class and
heterosexist culture. We give in to this partial or total loss
of memory because of our unconscious understanding that only when
an individual absorbs a middle class and heterosexual ethos will
she survive in contemporary U.S. society. This apprehension
reinforces the loss of our individual and collective memories.
Without these recollections our tendency to assimilate increases.
Since only those individuals who obey the imperative to
assimilate to middle class and heterosexual norms survive in
contemporary U.S. society, those of us who claim working class
and lesbian identities often mirror dominant ways of being. We
demonstrate our obedience by taking on particular characteristics
of middle class and heterosexist culture. For working class
women, this may mean adopting middle-class speech patterns; for
lesbians,, it may mean couching relationship-talk in male/female
terms. This imitation of governing attributes stages a. dangerous
theatre, however, because the fist of assimilation is a brutal
director. It demands the transformation of our original flesh;
eventually, we stare helplessly out from behind what is no longer
a mask .
We white, working class lesbians indeed have an inclination
to assimilate to ruling standards in terms of adopting features
exclusive to middle class and heterosexist culture. We strongly
intuit the fact that only individuals who become middle class and
heterosexual survive in contemporary U.S. society.
The ten white, working class lesbians surveyed for this
work expressed, through stories of their own lives, how this
order to assimilate affects individuals and communities.
The justifications for assimilation can be found in myths of
upward mobility. This fiction is fed to working class children
at a young age.
throughout childhood,," one woman writes.
"I got the (often unstated) message that I ought to be able to
make it, get a good job and make lots of money when I grew up.
In fourth grade, my teacher in school read us a Horatio Alger
story. I was so moved by this story., that at age nine I decided
to quit piano lessons (that my mother bartered for with a
friend) , and get a paper route. . . to begin to move up in the
world . "
Certainly, this assimilation imperative is a racist one.
One woman explains the way racism watchdogs immigrant communities
and demands their complicity for survival. She writes,
"Ethnically, my family was only one generation away on one side
and two generations away on the other from 'the old country' as
they said. My grandparents and parents were very conscious of
ethnic and racial identities and had a definite hierarchy — they
spoke in bigoted and racist terms daily. For some reason, I
never liked it, never felt comfortable with it, and ultimately
tried to figure out why hatred was so important a part of their
And in so many ways, assimilation alienates us from our
past. Working class lesbians who "move up" socially or
professionally lose important ties. One white, working class
lesbian speaks of the alienation of adopting values endemic to a
dominant culture, "I've probably lost a connection with my past
which could be a source of security, comfort and add a richness
to my life. "
Encouragingly, there does seem to exist in working class
lesbians a healthy resistance to assimilation, even when we know
a new, middle class identity can "save" us. "It seems to me,"
states one woman, "that working class people should be able to
get an education, speak and write eloquently, and not be assumed
to or accused of 'becoming middle class.' We B.re intelligent
In the natural course of things, a butterfly emerges from a
a. caterpillar — this life changes dramatically from one distinct
shape to another; yet, the two very dissimilar looking forms
house the same individual creature. In this way, each butterfly
flight grows from the will of the crawling caterpillar.
Like a diseased version of a quite healthy metamorphosis,
assimilation works to truncate the human individual quite
thoroughly. This marked change of appearance, attitudes,
character, condition and function, unlike a. natural
metamorphosis, obliterates the original human will. Assimilation
plants false dreams of flight in the consciousness. These dreams
germinate in a soil fertilized with the deadly chemicals of self-
hatred, and later feed a degenerate persona that most efficiently
serves the culturally hegemonous interests of the dominant U.S.
PART III — INTERNALIZED OPPRESSION
The women I love carry scars about their bellies.
The bite of the dragon cut there early. If it
hurt them, they forget it now, because who wants
to remember pain? They say that men are just
stronger than they are f better at some things.
I have seen the shards of their dreams swept up
and thrown away with the dirt on the floor. 1
We white, working class lesbians internalize oppression. On
a daily basis, we ingest the prevailing belief that such a social
location predicates a morally and intellectually inferior gaze.
This damaging conviction is based on the fact that only those
people who ascribe to a white, middle class, heterosexist ethos
are considered trustworthy moral agents and intelligent
thinkers in contemporary U.S. society.
A critical component that informs the white, middle class,
heterosexist ethos is a claim to superior morality and
intelligence. Through institutions such as the church, this
dominant ethos controls rules of right conduct, based on an
understanding of god informed by a patriarchal, familialist
ideology where the father governs. This leadership is supposedly
informed by superior reasoning abilities that no other members of
the family (children of either sex or women) possess. By
retaining control over academic institutions, these "fathers"
perpetuate writing and research that supports their pre-eminence,
and make claim to a. superior objectivity. The ability to remain
emotionally removed from a contestable issue while discussing it
supposedly informs a judicial assessment.
The American Heritage Dictionary defines "internalize" as,
"to take in (cultural values, for example) and make an integral
part of one's attitudes or beliefs." It defines "oppression" as,
"a feeling of being heavily weighed down, either mentally or
physically." Another source explains "oppression" as, "the
exercise of authority or power in a burdensome, cruel, or unjust
manner." The Feminist Dictionary traces this word to the Latin
opprimere , the meanings of which "include: to press against,
bear down, put down, crush, overwhelm, fall upon, take by
surprise, suppress, conceal; and by late Latin. . .the forcible
violation of a woman."
"Internalized oppression," then, is what Malcolm X
accurately termed "the rape of the psyche." Indoctrinated by
contemporary U.S. culture, and under considerable pressure to
conform to these racist, classist, and heterosexist attitudes,
the white, working class lesbian overpowers her self; she does
the dirty, abusive work of degrading her own interests, welfare,
and identity. Internalized oppression is the murderous dagger of
ruling class authority upon which the white, working class
lesbian impales her very being.
In this way, those who govern U.S. society use classism and
heterosexism to sharpen the influence of power-over, and coerce
the oppressed to do the dirty work of subjugation for them.
Racism also critically hones this control, and together these
dreadful systems contribute to our destruction.
Internalized oppression begins its ruinous work at a young
age; in the short story called "The Lesson," by Toni Cade
Bambara, one scene poignantly describes internalized oppression
in children. Miss Moore, a neighborhood grass-roots educator.
takes a group of impoverished, African-American children to a
pretentious, upper class toys tore in New York City, where they
learn a devastating lesson about the unequal distribution of
wealth in U.S. society.
Outside the store, the kids crack jokes about the amazingly
exorbitant prices of the toys — such as four hundred and eighty
dollars ($480) for a paperweight and one thousand, one hundred
ninety-five dollars ($1,195) for a sailboat. They exited ly pick
out toys they like, and try to estimate how long it would take
them to save up their allowances in order to buy them. The
narrator, Sylvia, says, "me and Sugar [was] screamin, 'This is
mine, that's mine, I gotta have that, that was made for me, I was
born for that. . ."
This frivolity ends, however, when Miss Moore suggests they
go into the store. Suddenly, the kids stop laughing. They stand
quietly, unwilling to enter where they unconsciously know they
don't belong. All bravado gone, Sylvia explains her feelings of
embarrassment and unworthiness . In so doing, she aptly describes
the debilitating effect of internalized oppression. Standing
outside the store, she thinks to herself,
. . . not that I'm scared [to go in], what's
there to be afraid of, just a toy store. But
I feel funny, shame. But what I got to be
shamed about? Got as much right to go in as
anybody. But somehow I can't seem to get hold
of the door, so I step away for Sugar to lead.
But she hangs back too. And I look at her and
she looks at me and this is ridiculous. I mean,
damn , I have never ever been shy about doing
nothing. . .10
Because these children live in the context of racist and c I assist
U.S. society, they take in negative messages about their
identities. These disparaging messages become a powerful inner
voice. Internalized oppression functions as an invisible armed
guard posted outside the toystore to frighten and intimidate
Sylvia and her friends.
This armed guard commits murder as well, violently
shattering the hopes, dreams and bodies of the oppressed.
only the individual suffers from this devastation. Internalized
oppression weakens the community; it reduces the collective,
liberative imagination. Oppressed communities desperately need
this inspiration as a resource for resistance in the midst of
unbearably harsh tribulations.
One example of how the loss of the individual diminishes
community is well illustrated in Sherley Anne William's novel
Dessa Rose , set in eighteenth-century, U.S. slavocracy. The
character Kaine, an enslaved African-American, dreams of being a.
musician. After hearing an African man play the banjo, he
builds one of his own.
Kaine 's persona exudes the liberating joyfulness of music —
the love and life it brings sparkles in his eyes. It strengthens
his will to survive. His music contributes to the life of the
community; a. soft and gentle tune soothes his partner Dessa to
sleep after a long day in the fields; a playful ditty lightens
other peoples misery; a mournful dirge laments their slavery.
Dessa describes his gift, "Kaine could always give you something
to laugh about, changing words with the men, teasing the women.
He made jokes on the banjo. . ."
In a singularly malicious act, the plantation master smashes
Kaine 's banjo. In so doing, he destroys the music and the man.
Spirit crushed,, Kaine's sense of self withers. Even though Dessa
finds the wood and horsehair he needs, Kaine cannot find strength
to build another banjo. The raw materials of his dream lie
useless before him. He despondently says to Dessa, "Masa can
make another one . . . Nigga can't do shit. Masa can step on a.
nigga. hand, nigga heart, nigga life, and what can a nigga do?
Nigga can't do shit."
Kaine loses his struggle against a. heavy-handed, daily
oppression, and internalizes this deadly authority. He
eventually physically strikes out at the plantation master in
what might seem on the surface a positively vengeful act.
However, a desire for death, not life, motivates Kaine. Of
course, he knows that such insubordination results in death; this
suicidal impulse indicates the severity of Kaine's internalized
oppression. When a suffering this terrible is ingested, dreams
wither, hope vanishes, and people die.
Brazilian-born educator Paulo Freire well understands the
way internalized oppression brutally uproots the lives of
individuals and the aspirations of communities. In his years
of experience developing effective pedagogy for literacy, he
worked closely with communities of people under siege from
tyrannical governments. He witnessed — many times over the
eroding effects of internalized oppression. In his book
Education for Critical Consciousness he writes:
unfortunately, what happens to a greater or
lesser degree in the various 'worlds' into
which the world is divided is that the ordinary
person is crushed, diminished, converted into a.
spectator, maneuvered by myths which powerful
social forces have created. These myths turn
against [one]; they destroy and annihilate
[the person]. "19
Such myths, strengthened by the power of the primordial
origin they lay claim to, rigidly hold in place a dominating
ideology, the sole purpose of which is to reflect the social,
political, and economic aspirations of the governing class.
Freire considers this fiction a most insidious tool; he writes,
"Perhaps the greatest tragedy of modern [humanity] is [its]
domination by the force of these myths."
Freire usefully describes the internalization of oppression
as a process. This system, progressing over time, advances the
agenda of those in power by erasing the critical consciousness of
oppressed groups. Critical consciousness is the thought, will
and perception one uses to exercise careful and exact evaluation
of the merits, faults, value or truth of a matter. Freire
explains the eradication of consciousness in this way:
[People] were crushed by the power of the
landlords, the governors, the captains, the
viceroys. I n tro-j ec ting this external authority,
[they] developed a consciousness which 'housed
oppression," rather than [a] free and creative
consciousness . . „ 23
In this statement, and indeed in all of his writing, he
cautions us that the internally oppressed individual provides
living quarters for those who dominate her. She unconsciously
harbors authoritative attitudes, based on whatever racist,
classist, or heterosexist beliefs prevail in her culture. Freire
warns that lodging such degrading notions proves dangerous. He
writes, "when [people] try to save themselves by following
prescriptions, they drown in leveling anonymity, without hope and
without faith, domesticated and adjusted."
We white, working class lesbians live in a culture based on
hateful beliefs that negate our very being. Internalized
classism and heterosexism a.re the visitors we house. These
unwelcome guests bring hopelessness with them, daily repeating
the false allegation that our moral and intellectual capabilities
are inferior. The rationalization for this dubious notion — that
is, a supposed lack of judgment and shortage of brainpower on our
part — rests solidly on the self-aggrandizing myth that the only
trustworthy moral agents and creative thinkers in contemporary
U.S. society are those people who ascribe to a white, middle
class, heterosexist ethos.
The arrogance implicit in the belief that only those who
support this suffocating ethos are reliable moral agents and
formative thinkers wields a haughty, overbearing power. White,
working class lesbians internalize this offensive attitude. We
swallow poisonous, domineering biases that high-handedly posit
our moral and intellectual inferiority.
Certainly, we white, working class lesbians internalize
oppression by ingesting the prevailing belief that our social
location predicates a moral and intellectual inferiority. This
damaging conviction is based on the fact that only those people
who sustain a white, middle class, heterosexist ethos receive
credit for being valid moral agents and original thinkers in
contemporary U.S. society.
A devastating illustration of the effects of such myths of
superiority is found in my survey of ten white, working class
lesbians. Attitudes throughout the survey indicate serious
levels of internalized oppression. Most women included
disclaimers, apologizing for things in their responses such as
writing style and word choice. Their replies poignantly describe
an effort to become whole, moral agents — to make decisions based
on their experience of right and wrong in the context of white,
working class, and lesbian experience. They admit to an ongoing
struggle to think of themselves as "smart." Daily, they hear and
deal bravely with messages that tell them they exercise bad
judgement and faulty thought.
One woman tells a. story that describes the powerful,
insidious nature of internalized oppression. She says, "I had a
chance to go to a private girls school on scholarship. . . and my
parents said "no," they couldn't dress me right — I'd never fit
in. So I did not take the opportunity. I always felt it was a
way I could have changed my life. Later I was again invited to
apply to [a private women's college] and did not — this time I had
internalized the reasons."
Internalized oppression fragments us. We are unable to do
constructive, self-affirming work when we are in pieces. One
woman, a British citizen, shares a vivid critical analysis,
"Spending most of my time at school, especially as a teenager,
with the middle class people, was crucial in my internalizing
classism. The English are masters of creating the institutions
and psychological climate wherein the oppressed contribute to
their own subjugation. . . So for much of my life I have stumbled
around, disoriented. . . the root of my confusion was firmly
embedded in the middle class colonization of my self. [I've
been] fragmented for a long time and in pain, without a strong
sense of self, without dignity
my self - "
a the most significant loss was
Provacatively , another working class lesbian speaks of the
internalization of oppressive values as her only way to survive
classist, heterose.-'ist institutions. She states
. . it was
in learning those values — internalizing them — that I got through
school. I would never have made it on my own without adopting
another persona . . . [Yet my greatest] loss has been not
understanding myself. Not being able to see what was going on —
why I often felt depressed, lonely'? and very sad."
The internalization of oppression always cuts us off from
our true selves. It makes sure we s.re unable to utilize valuable
resources for our healthy survival. One woman writes, "... I
have spent a. lot of my working and school life in a kind of fog,
lacking the sharpness of my working-class wit and judgment, not
having access to that grain of truth that my experience as a.
working class woman gives me."
Sharpened on the vicious whetstone of racist, classist,
and heterosexist intolerance, internalized oppression slices up
the soul. It diminishes our spirit, courage, and resolution.
Deprived of these resources, our power wastes away. Without
qualities of animation, fortitude, and determination, we lose the
capacity to feel pain, we no longer draw back from it, and we
Stunned from a life of daily oppression, white, working
class lesbians lose consciousness. We no longer feel the sharp
pain within. A fitful sleep overtakes us. This sleep is a
desperate attempt at survival. It is a strategy based on the
wisdom taught us by our bodies each night — that sleep refreshens
and strengthens. However, in this grievous sleep brought on by
unbearable pain, we intermittently wake and sleep, never quite
resting. We pass in and out of consciousness. This imposed
respite keeps us exhausted, groggy and unable to defend ourselves
from attack; this deadly sleep claims healing power, but it can
do nothing to mend our wounds.
Say goodnight to your mother
and turn out the light
she's working the late shift tonight
where it's bedpans, or dishpans, or factory machines
from midnight till eight in the morning
Justice is working her way back to us
I know she's working her way back . . .1
To conclude;, one must be willing to reach a decision or form
an opinion about a matter. This proves no small task when
considering the issue of passing in the lives of white, working
class lesbians. Reached after careful deliberation, my
conclusions reflect my faith in "common sense." My mother
encouraged me to practice this innate good judgement often.
Although many threads of thought weave in and out of the
preceding pieces on passing, assimilation, and internalized
oppression, I lift up the following four for considerations
As white, working class lesbians, I suggest that : 1) we love and
revere life, 2) we trust passing as an effective survival
strategy, 3) we underestimate the power of forces estranged from
the well-spring of life, and 4) we discount the power of what I
call our "ethic of good will."
First of all, I believe we white, working class lesbians use
passing as a survival strategy primarily because we love and
revere life. This love for life logically encourages us to
protectively conceal our identities when in danger.
In my survey on passing in the lives of white, working class
lesbians, a joyful reverence for life springs forth, even in the
face of adversity. One woman expresses this best when she says,
"I get in touch with my spirit when I sing;. . . when I am
conscious of sunshine, snow,, the wind, the ocean, trees, cats,
the earth; when I am in the company of women, and the very odd
man, who dare stand against death dealing. My spirit responds
positively to that which is biophilic, life-loving. And it
responds with rage and pain to that which is necrophilic, death-
loving . "
Secondly, I think our white, working class lesbian community
puts trust in passing as an effective survival strategy.
Unfortunately, this confidence contributes to an oversight of the
fact that passing leads to our spiritual, intellectual, and
physical demise. I believe we seriously discount the suffocating
power of assimilation and internalized oppression.
A healthy suspicion of passing appeared throughout the
surveys. Most women felt pressured to pass, and wished other
choices existed. Many felt passing to be so thoroughly informed
by classist and heterosexist assumptions as to be imposed upon
them. Yet, all agreed that passing did work in their favor often
enough to inform their basic trust of it.
"I pass because that is the best way to survive," admits one
woman surveyed, "We all do it. That's the only way to make it
out. Unless you pass, no amount of money or connecting or work
or lotto tickets or prayer can get you out. . . we &re here to
fill the holes with whatever cement we can find."
Thirdly, I feel we white, working class lesbians have a
tendency to forget, at our peril, that the powers pressuring us
to pass gain momentum daily in contemporary U.S. society. When
we continue to insist that passing operates as an adequate
survival strategy, we underestimate the power of death-
worshipping forces, long estranged from the well-spring of life.
Most of the women surveyed expressed frustration with the
issue of passing. Passing looms in their lives like a many-
headed hydra; no single attempt they make seems to be able to
eradicate it. Unfortunately, this power lessness clogs up our
reasoning abilities. It prevents us from seeing that the death-
dealing might of our oppressors is increasing, while our own
strategy of passing holds the same risky chance.
One woman expresses this immobilization very clearly, "I
hate passing, I hate the way it feels like I'm pushing down a
very big part of myself, into a little box in my gut. I hate the
fact that diversity on every level is not tolerated in so many
places in this society. . » I hate having to weigh the
possibilities of being punished for who I a.m. . ."
Finally, and most critically I believe, we discount our
white, working class lesbian "ethic of good will." We do this by
not drawing out values inherent in our community which could lead
to new, life-affirming survival strategies and eventually to the
transformation of corrupt structures. We remain unaware of the
power an ethic of good will holds.
There certainly appeared throughout the surveys what I would
call a common value. This value informs a strong sense of
community interest; each woman spoke of passing as a community
issue, not simply a personal one. This leads me to believe that
faithful exploration of our shared ethic will provide us with
enough imaginative energy to create alternatives, so that we no
longer rely on passing to survive.
One woman expresses what I consider a basic example of an
ethic of good will. She writes, "I make the best of what is and
make do materially, partly because it's a survival strategy, but
also because it's an ethical and creative way of living. . . My
friends a.re important to me and community is key. I share what I
have even when I don't have much. My house is open to folk and I
believe in feeding them!"
Dug deep in a central place, a well provides a community
with many important things. A place to gather, to share stories,
to draw up the sweet water of life, and to labor for deeper
founts of understanding, the well replenishes our community with
consistent sustenance and celebration. When we allow this well
to dry up, we die of thirst.
Therefore, since we white, working class lesbians a.re people
full of good will, always ready to render a. favor to one who
needs it even if we get nothing in return, and since we trust in
the sagacious knowledge of common sense, and since we believe
in a divine spirit that bestows love and protection freely on
humankind, then let us make an agreement with one another.
Let us agree to draw up , drink in , and dig out in order to stop
averting our gaze from the seriousness of our situation. If we
do these three things, I believe our critical focus will shift,
and we will be able to cleary locate the source of our strength
in the life-giving waters of an ethic of good will.
By "draw up," I mean that we should encourage these waters
to flow forth from our hearts and minds. Intuitively, we know we
have survived for a reason. But so many of our sisters have not.
It is our responsibi 1 i ty , then, to turn to those values that
provide us with stamina and courage, and lift them up.
We must then share these sweet, hard-won handfuls of water
with each other. This is what I describe when I say "drink in."
We s.re a thirsting people. The drought imposed by death-
worshipping powers has lasted much longer than just our lives;
a collective thirst parches us. Taking fresh life into ourselves
will bathe the wounds we suffer — the pain of internalized
oppression, for instance. The waters drawn from a well such as
ours contain strong healing.
Lastly, but most importantly, as white, working class
lesbians we must not forget to "dig out." What I am saying here
is that we must remember racism taints our ethic of good will.
It seeps into the ground water of our consciousness. Not only-
people of color a.re killed by racist poison. A large part of the
reason our bodies and spirits remain so weak, racism impedes our
ability to imagine alternatives to passing. We must recognize
the connections between our community and communities of color,
for we oppress ourselves when oppressing others.
Just as a. well must be re-drilled regularly in order to
provide clean, drinkable water, so we must faithfully labor to
deeply re-examine our values, as to insure that any life-
affirming strategies we propose using our ethic of good will
embrace a whole-hearted justice for all.
APFENDIX I — ORIGIN OF THE IDEA
Suzanne Pharr, author of Homophobia ; A Weapon of Sexism (#)
planted the seed for this work at a Simmons College lecture in
1990. At one point in this lecture Pharr suggested that "out"
lesbians demonstrate compassionate understanding for those
lesbian sisters who pass to survive. As a white, working class
lesbian who passes, I asked Pharr if she thought there existed a
relationship between sexual identity passing and class passing.
She said it was a very good question!
This inquiry grew into a paper entitled "The Politics of
Passing: White, Working Class Lesbians Incognito," written as a
final paper for the course "Feminist Theology and Ethics," team-
taught by Dr. Francine Cardman and Dr. Judith Dwyer at the Weston
School of Theology. Some of the questions raised in that paper
were, what does it mean when lesbians use the word "passing" to
describe an understanding of themselves living incognito as
heterosexual? What does it mean as well when members of the
U.S.;, white, working class use this word when adapting to the
value systems of the white middle class?
These questions sprouted into my Master's thesis, the first
part of a four chapter exploration of passing in the lives of
white, working class lesbians. I intend to continue this project
in my PhD program beginning fall 1991 at Emory University in
(*) Homophobia. : A Weapon of Sexism , by Suzanne Pharr, Chardon
Press, Little Rock, AR , 1988.
APPENDIX II — METHODOLOGY
Eman c i pa to r y Historiography
To organize this project, I use The Reverend Dr. Katie G.
Cannon's Emancipatory Historiography method, which consists of
four steps: 1) analytical constructs, 2) structure of historical
development (institutional constraints), 3) shared disposition
(culture), and 4) collective action (see Diagram 1). She
describes this method as, "explicit historical, socioethical
analysis aimed to connect our historical narratives of specific,
experienced contestable issues to the broader historical
framework" (Cannon, "Emancipatory Historiography and Medical
Ethics," lecture notes).
For this thesis, I utilize the first step, "analytical
constructs." The five constructs related to passing I have
chosen to analyze include: passing, assimilation, internalized
oppression, tokenism and accomodation. In this paper I explore
the first three of these.
Dr . Isaac R - Clark's Homi letical Method
To flesh out this framework, I speak using Dr. Clark's
homiletical method, as taught by Dr. Cannon in her course,
"Ethical Themes for Relevant Preaching." Beginning with the
"origin of the idea," the powerful crux of this methodology
consists of the "sermonic problem," which asks the deceptively-
simple questions: what, how, and why? It requires the use of a
"why crisis" to gauge the pathos, ethos, logos, and theos of a
particular community. This method encourages, as well, the
development of relevant metaphors to stretch the examination of
the contestable issue (see Diagram 2).
EMANCIPATORY HISTORIOGRAPHY (*)
(connecting historical narratives of a contestable
issue to the broader historical framework)
$ Employ "experience-distant" concepts to clarify
the contestable issue
^Define those concepts
* Develop model of logic as a benchmark
to assess deviations
* What motivational constructs
may or may not act together
to transform disposition or
* Recover social memory —
lift up the history of
resistance to oppression
* Demonstrate collective
* How does this
group of people
* What institutional
* Determine the shared race/sex/class understanding
of a group about the contestable issue
* Construct a cognitive map of the terrain
of lived experience
(#) excerpted from the notes "Emancipatory Historiography and
Medical Ethics," by Dr. Katie G. Cannon.
DR. ISAAC R. CLARK'S HOMILETICAL METHOD
(as used in this thesis)
Origin of the Idea
# "a-ha" experience, click, consciousness-raised
# sermonic problem asks what, how, why?
* "we have a tendency to (what)
in terms of (how) ,
due to (why) ."
* flip the sermonic problem three times
( a ) ( b ) ( c )
what how why
how why what
why what how
* the "show me" — examples that clearly illustrate
the what, how, why
* why crisis
* gauge the pathos, ethos, logos, and theos
of your audience
* remember they will ask the question,
* construct a relevant metaphor for illustration
APPENDIX III — SURVEY OF WHITE, WORKING CLASS LESBIANS
Data used in this paper come from a survey on passing I
designed for white, working class lesbians. Ten women who self-
identify as such participated in the study. I reached these
women through word of mouth and advertisements in the Episcopal
Divinity School Bui let in . Constructed in questionnaire form, the
survey consists of a brief, ten question demographics form
followed by twelve essay questions. Most women wrote 5-10 pages
in response and returned the survey within three weeks of
The demographics form asks the questions: what is your age,
what is your racial /ethnic heritage, what is your religious
heritage, how do you name your spiritual self today, describe
your educational background (current level), what kind of
environment do you live in primarily (rural/farm, suburb, urban),
what is your occupation, what is your average yearly income, you
Are a citizen of what country, and in what region of that country
have you lived the longest?
The demographic results illustrate that the average age of
the ten participants was in the range of 25-34 years of age (see
Figure 1). The racial /ethnic heritage of those surveyed was
primarily northern european , with the exception of one woman, who
claims some native american heritage as well. All participants
were raised in the Christian tradition, from fundamentalist
Protestantism to Roman Catholicism. Significantly, none of these
women now remain in the Christian tradition. They do, however,
all still claim a spiritual self. They name this in a. variety of
ways, using terms such as witch, post-christian , and humanist
(see Table 1). The survey was skewed towards a high level of
educational background,, with all women as college graduates or
above (see Figure 2). The kind of environment these women live
in is primarily urban. Their occupations s.re student, cleaner,
teacher, psychotherapist, word processor, marketing director, and
research associate. All women but one make less than $30,000 per
year (See Figure 2). Most women claim U.S. citizenship. One
woman is a Canadian citizen, however and another is a citizen of
Great Britain (UK).
The main body of the survey, based on Marvin Ellison's
"Social Strata Inventory" and Carter Heyward and Bev Harrison's
"Life- Journey Questionnaire" asks these questions:
1. How do you define "passing?" When is the first time you
heard this word? What was the context in which you heard it
2. What metaphors or images come to mind when you think of
3. When did you know you were a. lesbian? What is the story of
your coming out process? Does passing play a. part in this
story? If so, how?
4. How has your religious heritage influenced the way you think
about your lesbianism? How has your lesbianism influenced
the way you think about your religious heritage?
5. How do you define your spirituality today? Does passing have
an influence on that spirituality? If so, in what ways?
6. How do you explain your identification as working class? How
has your ra.ce or ethnicity influenced your class
consciousness? How has passing played a part in your life
as a working class woman?
7. What were the stated and unstated assumptions about passing
in your family? How was passing viewed? Was it ever talked
about? As a child, what was your understanding of your
parents' passing? Do you. know what your parents did to pass?
If not, why not, and how did that shape your own attitude
8. What is your passing history? What kinds of passing have you.
done? What passing skills do you have? What kinds of
passing have you done in the workplace or institutions such
as church, school, home, and family?
9. In what situations do you feel most pressured to pass?
10. What &re your attitudes about passing? If you had an
absolute choice, what would you do about your passing?
11. In relation to passing, what has been your most significant
gain? Your most significant loss?
12. Any other comments about passing?
AGE OF RESPONDENTS
/ \ A"
i | i 1 -I i -i -■ | r
i ■ i
C D E F G H
1 Under 18
6 65 +
EDUCATION AND INCOME LEVEL OF RESPONDENTS
g Some Graduate Work
g College Degree
1 Less than 10,000
6 40,000 +
Respondent Religious Heritage
Spiritual Naming Today
Method is t
Feminist Lesbian Witch
Church of England
Woman Al ive i
and Irish Catholic
Dianic Pagan, Witch
Julie Wilson,, "Prayer," unpublished poem, Cambridge,, MA, 1989.
Beverly Harrison, edited by Carol S. Robb, Making the
connections ; essays in feminist social ethics „ Beacon Press,
Boston, MA, 1985, 236.
Peggy Mcintosh, "White Privilege: Unpacking the invisible
knapsack," The Independent School Bui letin , winter 1990, page 31.
A thorough examination of white supremacist movements in the
United States can be found in The si lent brotherhood : inside
American ' s racist underground , by Kevin Flynn, Gary Gerhard t,
Collier Macmillan Press, New York, NY, 1989.
Beah Richard's poems realistically describe the effect of white
supremacy on women of color. See her book A black woman speaks
and other poem s , Inner City Press, Los Angeles, CA , 1974.
Class consciousness in the U.S. is discussed by Reeve Vannaman
and Lynn Weber Cannon in their book The American perception of
c lass , Temple University Press, Philadelphia, PA, 1987.
Katie G. Cannon suggests these thirteen factors determine class
location in the U.S.: ancestry, economic income, style of life,
education, interpersonal relationships, manners, social distance,
values, ideology/political stance, religious affiliations,
motivation, expectations, and language.
Upward mobility is defined by Mike Davis in his book Prisoners
of the American dream : pol i tics and economy in the history of the
U.S. working c lass , Verso, New York, NY: distributed by Sc hoc ken
Books, London, England 1986.
Patsy Gfeller, Peter Gf el ler and Anna Maria Moser Gf el ler :
Gf el ler f ami ly tree — 125 years in America 1853-1978 ,, unpublished
manuscript, Junction City, KS , 1978, p. 2.
Benjamin DeMott elaborates about the confusion of U.S. middle
class identity in his book The imperial midd le : why Americans
can ' t thin k straight about class, Morrow Publishers, New York,
These ruling class families are described by Nelson W. Aldrich,
Jr. in Old money : the mythology of America " s upper c lass , A . A ■
Knopf: distributed by Random House, New York, NY, 1988.
Those who govern the U.S. do profit, and this is exemplified in
the Paul Blu.mberg book The predatory society : deception in the
American marketpl ace , by Paul Blum berg, Oxford University Press,
New York, NY, 1989.
One definition of "working class" can be found in Douglas M»
Eicher, Occupation and c 1 ass consciousness in America. , Greenwood
Press, New York, NY, 1989.
Exploitation of the working class is discussed by Thomas R.
Brooks in Toi 1 and trouble : a history of American labor , Dell,
New York, NY, 1971."
To read more about heterosexist distinctions, see Cynthia Fuchs
Epstein, Deceptive distinctions : sex , gender , and the social
order , Yale University Press: Russell Sage Foundation, New Haven,
For a discussion of marriage as a form of social control, read
the somewhat dated yet useful Geoffrey May, Social control of sex
expression , W. W„ Morrow & Company, New York, NY, 1931.
The history and customs of marriage are illustrated by
Christopher N.L. Brooke in The medieval idea of marriage , Oxford
University Press, New York, NY, 1989.
Psychological implications of racism in the white consciousness
can be found in Joel Kovel , White racism : a psycho hi story , Free
Association Books, London, England, 19383.
Class injury is described by Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb
in Hidden in j uries of c lass , Vintage Books, New York, NY, 1972.
Lesbians speak about the struggle to name their lesbian
identity in the book edited by Julia Penelope and Susan J. Wolfe,
The original coming out stories : expanded e dition , The Crossing
Press, Freedom, CA, 1989.
See editor Ted J. Smith, for a collection of essays about
propaganda in Propaganda ; a plural is tic perspective , Praeger, New
York, NY, 1989.
Julie Wilson, "The politics of passing: white, working class
lesbians incognito," unpublished paper, Cambridge, MA, 1990,
p . 16 .
Cheris Kramarae and Paula A. Treichler, A feminist dictionar
Pandora Press, London, England, 1989, p. 322.
For more information on women passing as men, see "She even
chewed tobacco: a pictorial narrative of passing women in
America, "in Hidden from history : rec laiming the gay and lesbian
past f edited by Martin Du.berman , Martha Vicinu.5, and George
Chauncey, Jr., Meridian Press, New York, NY, 1989.
In my search for definitions of "passing," I looked to many
other sources. Interestingly, passing was not listed in these
four as a subject for definition or discussion: The Negro
Almanac , ed . Harry A. Floski, James Williams, 5th Edition, Gale
Research Inc., Detroit, MI, 1989; Encyc I opedia of Bl ack America ,
W. Augustus Low, Virgil A. Clift, McGraw-Hill, New York, NY,
1981; The New Jewish Encyc lopedia , David Bridger, Samuel Wolk,
Behrman House Inc., NY, 1962; and Dictionary of Race and Ethnic
Relations , by E. Ellis Cashmore, Routledge, London, England,
Case studies on interracial marriage in the U.S. can be found in
Ernest Porterfield, Black and white mixed marriages , Nelson-Hall,
Chicago, IL, 1978.
Nella La r sen, edited by Deborah E. McDowell, Quicksand and
passing , Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, NJ , 1986,
p . 172 .
For an indepth report on racial hatred, read Inci tement to
racial hatred : issues and ana 1 y s i s /Human Rights Commission ,
Australian Government Publication Service, 1982.
Larsen , op . cit . , p. 171.
May Sarton, The education of Harriet Hatfield , W. W. Norton, New
York, NY, 1989, p. 75.
Gerda Lerner, Black women in white America ; a documentary
history , Pantheon Books, New York, NY, 1972, p. 67.
Kore Archer, "This great drama," Sinister Wisdom , summer/fall
1988, p. 88.
For more information on feminist liberation theology, see Katie
G. Cannon, et. al . , God ' s fierce whimsy , The Pilgrim Press, New
York, NY, 1985.
Carter Hey ward , Touching our strength , Harper & Row Publishers,
San Francisco, CA , 1989, p. 29.
Julie Wilson, "A conversation with Carter Heyward about
passing," unpublished, Cambridge, MA, 1991.
For more on Carter Heyward ' s theories of justice, read her book
Our passion for justice . The Pilgrim Press, New York, NY, 1984.
About liberation theology, also see Marc H. Ellis and Otto
Madura, editors, The future of 1 iberation theology ; essays in
honor of Gustavo Gutierrez . Orbis Books, Maryknoll, NY 1989.
The atmosphere Carter Heyward speaks of here is documented in
David R. Goldf ield , Biac k a whi te , and southern ; ra.rz& relations
and southern cul ture, 1940 to the present , Louisiana State
University Press, Baton Rouge, LA, 1990.
See George R. Edwards, Gay/ 1 esbian 1 i Deration ; a b i b 1 i c a 1
perspective , Pilgrim Press, New York, NY, 1984.
Coming out versus staying in the closet is the subject of Eve
Kosofsky Sedgwick, Epistemoloqy of the closet, University of
California Press, 1991.
Carter Heyward says that Dorothee Solle first used the term
"christof ascism" in conversation with her colleagues at Union
Theological Seminary in New York in the early 1980' s.
Audre Lorde, Sister outsider , The Crossing Press, Trumansburg,
NY, 1984, p. 115.
Gary Corns toe k, Violence against lesbians and gay men , Columbia
University Press, New York, NY, 1991, p. 38.
Julie Wilson, "Passing survey of white, working class
lesbians," unpublished, Cambridge, MA, 1991.
This article documents class differentials in mortality rates
in the U.S. Vicente Navarro, "The class gap," in The Nation ,
April 8, 1991, p. 436-437.
Janet Zandy, Cal 1 inq home : workinq-c lass women ' s writings ,
Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, NJ , 1990, p. 155.
More on working conditions of working class women can be found
in the oral histories edited by Victoria Byerly Hard times cotton
mill girls , ILR Press, Ithaca, NY, 1986.
Survival skills as resistance to oppression B.re discussed in
chapter 5 of Gerda Lerner, Black women in white America ; a
documentary history , Pantheon Books, New York, NY, 1972.
Ellen Boneparth and Emily Stoper, editors, Women , power and
pol icy ; toward the year 2000 , Pergammon Press, 1988, p. 227.
Por more discussion on women and work, see Henrietta C. Moore,
Feminism and anthropology , chapter 5 "Women and the state,"
University of Minnesota Press, 1988.
PART II — ASSIMILATION
Julie Wilson, "A long poem for a hard night," unpublished poem,
Cambridge, MA, 1990, part II.
For more on the subject of assimilation, read The art of
crossing cul tures , by Craig Storti , In tercul tural Press,
Yarmouth, ME, 1989.
Paule Marshall, Brown girl , brownstones , The Feminist Press at
The City University of New York, NY, 1981, p. 221.
Kate Chopin, "Desiree's baby," in The awakening , Bantam Books,
New York, NY, 1981, p. 178.
I bid . , p. 178.
Ibid . , p. 179.
The genocide of Native Americans is one subject the poet
Chrystos takes on in her book Not vanishing , Press Bang
Publishers, Vancouver, B.C., Canada, 1988.
Adrienne Rich, Blood , bread , and poetry : selected prose 1979-
1985, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, NY, 1986, p. 123.
Ibid . , p. 142.
A thorough explanation of WASP (white, ang lo-saxon , protestant)
culture can be found in Crashing the gates ; the de-WASPing of
America ' s power el i te , by Robert C. Christopher, Simon and
Schuster, New York, NY, 1989.
Rich, op ,. ci t . , p. 102
A collection of fiction, essays, art, poetry, and interviews
describe experiences of Jewish women. Edited by Melanie
Kaye/Kantrowitz and Irena Klepfisz, The tribe of D i n a : a Jewish
women ' s anthology , Sinister Wisdom 29/30 , 1986.
More information about Jewish identity is found in the book
Jewish id en ti ty in the modern world , by Michael A. Meyer,
University of Washington Press, Seattle, WA , 1990.
Rich, op . ci t . , p . 110.
Rich, op . ci t . , p . 111.
Rich, loc . ci t . .
Rich, op. cit . , p. 127, 128.
The concept of the "outsider" in literature is explored in the
book Outsiders : a study in life and letters , by Hans Mayer,
translated by Denis M. Sweet, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA 1982.
Adrienne Rich, On 1 ies , secrets , and si lence ; selected prose
1966-1978 , W. W. Norton & Company, 1979, p. 252."
Adrienne Rich, Blood , bread , and poetry; selected prose 1979-
1985 , W. W. Norton & Company, New York, NY, 1986, p. 120.
Ibid . , p. 141 .
Domination and power — over ideologies enforce the assimilation
imperative. Domination is discussed in Bernard G. Meyerson , The
abuse of power : a study of three factors in its development ,
University of Lund, 1987.
As cited in the introduction to this paper, Mike Davis talks
about the elusive U.S. success story in Prisoners of the American
dream : pol i tics and economy in the history of the US working
c lass . Verso, New York, NY: distributed by Sc hoc ken Books,
For more on alienation, see Worker alienation , researched and
written by Loren Meltzer under the supervision of Michael Rosowl ,
Work in America Institute, Scarsdale, NY, 1978.
Alice Denise Danford interviewed eight working class women
students who speak of alienation in the academic setting; their
words a.re cited in her Master's thesis "Scaling the ivory tower:
the experiences of first generation, working-class women
students," unpublished. Southern Illinois University, Carbondale,
For more on assimilation in the lives of lesbians and gays, see
the comprehensive textbook Looking at g a y and lesbian life , by
Warren Blumenfeld and Diane Raymond, Beacon Press, Boston, MA,
PART III — INTERNALIZED OPPRESSION
Julie Wilson, "The best prophets have thrown away a thousand
dreams," unpublished essay, Cambridge, MA, 1991, p. 2.
"Moral agency" is that action arising from one's sense of right
and wrong in relation to human character; it is informed by-
A critical analysis of middle class values can be found in
Barbara Ehrenreich, Fear of falling: the inner life of the midd le
c lass , Harper Perennial, New York, NY, 1990.
For more about this dominant ethos, read editors Anthony Biddens
and David Held, Classes , power , and conf 1 ic t : c lassical and
contemporary debates. University of California Press, Berkeley,
Significantly, the root of opprimere , the Latin " premere , " also
operates as the foundation of the English word "depress."
Particularly for women, this raises the cogent question
(unfortunately not within the scope of this paper), "what is the
actual difference between "oppression" and "depression?"
Cheris Krs.marae and Paula A „ Treichler, A feminist dictionary ,
Pandora Press, London, England, 1989,, p. 314.
Malcolm X talks about "the rape of the psyche" in B_x any means
necessary , Pathfinder Press, New York, NY, 1970.
Internalized oppresion is also discussed by Hussein Abdilahi, in
Frantz Fan on and the psychology of oppression , Plenum Press, New
York, NY 1985.
Toni Cade Bambara, "The lesson," in An Introduction to
Literature , edited by Sylvan Barnet, Morton Berman , and William
Bur to, Little, Brown and Company, Boston, MA, 1985, p. 411.
Ibid . , p. 414.
Joanna Kadi discusses the shattered dreams of her working class
aunt in her article, "Broken feet: my Aunt Rose didn't dream
much," in Gay Community News, January 21-27, 1990, page 8.
Also, Joanna Kadi talks about internalized oppression in terms
of "the conquered self" and "the conquest of the self" in her
Master's thesis, "Searching for words, searching for knowledge,"
unpublished, Episcopal Divinity School, Cambridge, MA, 1990.
The Amer ican Heritage Dictionary defines "slavocracy" as, "The
power structure formed by the advocates of slavery in the United
States before the civil war."
Katie G. Cannon discusses the ideological hegemony that
supported slavocracy in the Christian community in her article,
"Slave ideology and biblical interpretation," in Semeia : an
experiment a 1 j ournal for biblical criticism , no. 47, Scholars
Press, Atlanta, GA , 1989.
Sherley Anne Williams, Dessa Rose , Berkley Books, New York, NY,
1986, p. 29.
I bid . , p . 34 .
For a historical discussion of slavery and violence see David
Brion Davis, From homicide to slavery : studies in American
cul ture , Oxford University Press, New York, NY, 1986.
For a recent look at Paulo Freire's philosophy, see We make the
road by wal king ; conversations on education and social
change/My les Ho r ton and P aulo Freire , edited by Brenda Bell, John
Gaventa, and John Peters, Temple University Press, Philadelphia,
Paulo Freire, Education for critical consciousness , Continuum
Publishing Company, New York, NY, 1973, p. 6.
In her master's thesis, Susan Phillips discusses how the ruling
classes (white, western, European, Christian men) distort social
memory. See "Changing mirrors into windows,," unpublished,
Episcopal Divinity School, Cambridge, MA, 1991.
Freire, op ■ ci t . , p. 6.
Thank you to Susan Phillips for clarifying the erasure of
critical consciousness for me; she suggests that internalized
oppression, fed by illusory myths, takes up the space in our
bodies where a. critical consciousness should be.
See section three "( De ) colonized selves, finding hope through
horror," in Making face , making soul /hacienda car as : creative and
critical perspectives by women of color , edited by Gloria
Anzaldua, Aunt Lute Foundation Books, San Francisco, CA , 1990.
ci t . ,
ci t . ,
Julie Wilson, "Working woman's lullaby," unpublished song,
Cambridge, MA, 1989.
Adrian Furnham writes about common sense in his book Lay-
theories : everyday understanding of the prob lems in the socia 1
sciences, Pergammon Press, New York, NY, 193S.
I term the white, working class lesbian ethic an "ethic of good
will." I base this term on the pathos, ethos, logos and theos of
white, working class lesbians. I believe these women:
1) pathos — bear a. life-affirming disposition towards others,
2) ethos — believe in doing favors for other people, even if they
get nothing in return, 3) logos — understand cosmic reason to be
best found in common sense, and 4) theos — believe in a divine
spirit that bestows love and protection freely on humankind.
I will explore this ethic of good will indepth in chapter four of
my doctoral dissertation.
For a. very clear explanation of how U.S. economy is concretely
based on death-dealing, see Marilyn Waring 's chapter 7 "The value
of death: how war, poverty, and poisons help the economy," in I f
women counted : a new feminist economics , Harper &. Row Publishers,
New York, NY, 1988.
See Elaine Neil Orr's book Ti 1 1 ie 01 sen and a feminist spiritual
vision , Universi-ty Press of Mississippi, Jackson, MS, 19S7.
Sarah Lucia Hoagland discusses lesbian value and culture in her
comprehensively indexed Lesbian ethics : toward new value ,
Institute of Lesbian Studies, Palo Alto, CA , 1988.
See S. Iniobong Udoidem, Authority and the common good in social
and pol i tical phi losophy , University Press of America, 1988.
John J. McNeil discusses "the gay virtues" in chapter four of
his book Taking a chance on god , Beacon Press, Boston, MA, 1988
Two feminists discuss friendship as a motive for community
building. Maria C. Lugones and Elizabeth V. S pel man, "Have we
got a theory for you! Feminist theory, cultural imperialism and
the demand for 'the woman's voice,'" Women ' s Studies
International Forum , vol. 6, no. 6, pp. 573-581, 1983.
A collection of essays on feminist spirituality provides
examples of new ways of thinking, edited by Judith Plaskow and
Carol P. Christ, Weaving the visions , Harper & Row, San
Francisco, CA , 1989.
Further exploration of identity politics is found in Shane
P he Ian, Identity pol i tics : lesbian feminism and the 1 imi ts of
community , Temple University Press, 1989.
More on the importance of white women doing anti-racism work is
found in Carrie Jane Singleton, "Race and gender in feminist
theory," Sage „ vol. VI, no. 1, summer 1989.
See Iris Marion Young, Justice and the pol i tics of difference ,
by Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ , 1990. Also see
Karen Lebacgz, who capsulizes six theories of justice, from John
Stuart Mill to Jose Porfirio Miranda in her book Si;; theories of
j ust ice , Augsburg Publishing House, Minneapolis, MN , 1986.
alienation, 35, 36
Archer, Kore, 19
dictionary definitions of, 23, 2?
formative figure definition, 31—34
literature descriptions, 29-31
white, working class lesbian survey exemplification, 35, 36
Etlood , bread , and poetry , Rich, 31-33
Brown girl , brownstones , Marshall, 29, 30
Cade Bambara, Toni, 3S
Cal ling home , Zandy, 6, 24
Cannon, Katie G., 53, 54
Chopin, Kate, 30
Clark, Isaac R., 53, 55
class structure, 8
class injury, 12
common sense, 47, 50
common value, 49
community, 40, 49, 50
Comstock, Gary, 23
Craft, Ellen and William, IS
critical consciousness, 42
cultural hegemony, 10
Desiree ' s Baby , Chopin, 30, 31
Pes s a Rose, Williams, 40, 41
dominant ethos, 37
downward mobility, 32
Education for critical consciousness , Freire, 41, 42
Ellison, Marvin, 57
Emancipatory historiography, 53, 54
ethic of good will, 47, 49-51
familialist ideology, 37
Feminist Dictionary , 16, 38
feminist liberation theology, 19
fragmentation, 44, 45
Freire, Paulo, 41, 42
Gfeller family, 9
Harrison, E-ieverly, 7, 57
heteroses ism , 10
heterosexual , 11
Heyward, Carter, 19-22, 57
homiletical method of Dr. Clark, 53, 55
Homophobia : a weapon of sexism , Pharr, 52
as a process, 42
dictionary definitions, 37, 38
formative figure description, 41, 42
literature descriptions, 38-41
metaphor, 45, 46
white, working class lesbian exempl if ication , 44, 45
invisibility, IS, 20, 21
Larsen, Nella, 17
lesbian identity, 13, 19, 31, 34
Lorde, Audre, 22
Making the connections , Harrison, 7
Marshall, Paule 29
Mcintosh, Peggy, 8
moral agent, 37
myths, 9, 42-44
Nestle, Joan, 16
objectivity, 7 , 37
On 1 ies , secrets , and si lence , Rich, 33
oppression , 38
origin of the idea, 52
dictionary definitions, 16
formative figure definition, 17-22
literature descriptions, 17-19
metaphor, 26, 27
white, working class lesbian survey exemplification, 26
white, working class lesbian survey, 56-61
Passing , La r sen , 17, 13
Pharr, Suzanne, 52
racism, 35, 38, 51
Rich, Adrienne, 31-34
ruling class, 9, 42
Barton, May, 18
Schafter, Diane, 26
Sinister Wisdom, 1?
Sister outsider , Lorde, 22
social location, 7
Solle, Dorothee, 22
survey of white, working class lesbians, 56-61
age of respondents graph (Figure 1), 59
demographics, 56, 57, 59, 60
education and income graph (Figure 2), 60
essay questions, 57
spiritual naming (Table 1), 61
Stanley, Liz, 16
The education of Harriet Hatfield , Sarton , 18
The lesson. Cade Bam bar a, 38-40
Touching our strength , Heyward , 19
upward mobility, 9, 35
against lesbians and gays, 23
white, working class lesbians description of,
in exploitative labor, 24, 25
white, working class lesbians description of,
of internalized oppression, 40
Violence against lesbians and gay men , Comstock, 23
white, middle class ethos, 9, 34, 37, 43
white privilege, 7
white, working class lesbians
ethic of good will, 47, 49-51
exemplifications, 23-27, 35, 36, 44, 45, 47-49
Williams, S her ley Anne, 40
Wilson, Julie, 2, 7, 28, 37, 47
Women , power , and pol icy , Schafter, 26
working class, 10
X, Malcolm, 38
Zandy, Janet, 6, 24
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